Another Clearing Storm, and a Horsetail Fall Forecast

Misty sunrise, Half Dome, Merced River, and clouds, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Misty sunrise, Half Dome, Merced River, and clouds, from yesterday morning

Northern California received some desperately-needed rain over the weekend. Most of that rain fell further north, so while Yosemite Valley got around 2.6 inches of rain, Blue Canyon, along Interstate 80 west of Lake Tahoe, got over 9 inches. But I’m not complaining. I’ll take whatever we can get, and those areas further north need the rain just as much as we do.

Like the last storm, this one also had a good sense of timing, clearing just before sunrise Monday morning. I rose early and photographed at several locations in Yosemite Valley, but my favorite image was this one of Half Dome from along the Merced River. I’ve posted other sunrise images from this spot before, but the cloud formations above Half Dome yesterday were exceptional.

The snow levels with this system were high, above 8,000 feet most of the time. I haven’t been able to find snow totals for Tuolumne Meadows, but Mammoth Mountain got two to three feet of snow, and Tuolumne probably got similar amounts.

The waterfalls in Yosemite Valley got a big boost from this storm. Their flow will diminish as the immediate runoff from the storm dissipates, but that new high-elevation snowpack will help feed the waterfalls for awhile, and we should see near-normal water flow for at least the next month or so.

The watershed for Horsetail Fall, however, is lower than for Yosemite and Bridalveil falls. I’m sure some snow fell in Horsetail’s drainage over the weekend, but not much. Nevertheless, between this storm and the previous one I think there’s enough snow to melt and feed Horsetail for awhile. The best window of light for Horsetail is about February 16th through 23rd, and my guess is that we’ll have a pretty decent flow during that time. It will probably be a little below average, but better than it’s been the last couple of years.

Warm weather is predicted for this week, which should help melt some of the snow and keep things flowing. There’s a chance of showers in the forecast for Sunday, and hints of a bigger storm next week in the long-range models. We need all the rain and snow we can get, so keep doing those rain dances!

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: A Perfectly-Timed Storm; The Best Time to Photograph Horsetail Fall, Revised; Horsetail Fall Questions

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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44 Responses to “Another Clearing Storm, and a Horsetail Fall Forecast”

  1. Kevin Reilly says:

    I agree. Those clouds are awesome. What a super shot! I hope your friends over at Mammoth Weather are right about the potential storm and snowfall.

  2. Bob Haine says:

    Here in southern California, we too will take what we can get. As I recall, back in the 80′s (or maybe the 90′s) when Pete Wilson was governor, we had a “March Miracle” as a number of wet storms arrived and saved the day. The bottom line, it seems we never get enough, so we have to use our water wisely and share it equitably. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy a few days of sunshine with temps up into the 80′s!

    • Michael Frye says:

      Bob, we’ve certainly had some very pleasant weather this winter. It would be very enjoyable if we didn’t know how desperately we need the rain. Let’s hope for another March Miracle!

  3. In the Moment: A Landscape Photography (and Weather Forecasting) Blog! ;-)

  4. David Huff says:

    Thanks, Michael. I really appreciate the update on the waterfalls. Will be up this weekend chasing more dreams around the Valley.

  5. Sylvia Wright says:

    Hi, Michael,

    Just back to the Lodge from photographing Horsetail Falls and it was lovely! This is only my second year photographing it, so I don’t have a long series of comparison shots, but tonight was certainly satisfying to the 50 or so of us gathered at Number 10.

    Park Service was aggressively enforcing parking laws, so if others reading this are headed up — arrive early to get a parking spot, or be prepared to hike a ways.

    Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and local wisdom with the rest of us.


  6. Vivienne says:

    Hi Michael,

    Fabulous light! I love the shimmery quality to this. I too have become quite a student of the weather since I really got into photography.

  7. Derek Cowan says:

    Thanks so much Michael for sharing your outlook on Horsetail! So hopeful to hear and indeed we will welcome as much snow & rain as possible here in CA!! I’ve never been before to try and capture this wonderful event. I sure hope it holds out until we arrive Feb 21! -Derek

    • Michael Frye says:

      You’re welcome Derek, and if the Mammoth guy is right there will some more precip between now and the 21st. For your sake I hope it’s not too stormy when you’re in Yosemite, but we can’t be picky about the timing of storms at this point.

  8. John C says:

    Thanks for the update Michael. I’m hoping the waterfalls get going and run until my early June trip. :-)

    Love your photo. It must be nice to live so close.

  9. Gail Berreman says:

    Thanks, Michael, for sharing your expertise about the timing for Horsetail Fall. Didn’t have too much luck the last couple of years but will be there again next week. :-).
    Question: where is a good source of information about Yosemite’s weather forecast? You mentioned a park’s weather site? Thanks again.

  10. As alway, thank you Michael for the information about the park and timely Horsetail info. The rain forecast is also fantastic but with the clouds next week hopefully they don’t block our light. Funny how it is one of the few times I worry about clouds rather than pray for them.

    Again, fantastic work Michael and thank you!


  11. Mike says:

    Thank so much for sharing your expertise and photos. Fantastic stuff you’ve made.
    My family and I are heading up this weekend. This will be my first time so hopefully I will have the “Beginner’s luck”. Will the 70-200 lens be ok shooting from both the North and South side?


    • Michael Frye says:

      You’re welcome Mike, and I hope you have that beginner’s luck. 200mm for a full-frame sensor is good enough to fill the frame with the waterfall from the north side. For the south side, ideally you’d like to have something a little longer, though you could always crop a bit. If you’re using an APS-size sensor then the 70-200 is perfect for both sides.

  12. Wendy says:

    Hi Michael,
    I really admire your work and appreciate that you share your insight. So many like to keep their secrets to themselves.
    We are making the trip on the 21st. Hopefully we will be able to get a campsite. Usually in the winter it’s not an issue but we’ve never been during the firefall event. Fingers crossed!
    We also plan to stop by the gallery to see your prints in person.

    :) Wendy

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks Wendy. I don’t really go into the campgrounds, so I don’t have any insights about how full they will be during Horsetail season. It’s hard to imagine they would be full, but maybe someone else reading this has some first-hand knowledge and can chime in. Good luck in both finding a campsite and photographing Horsetail Fall!

  13. Justice says:

    I love your pictures and l really appreciate all your tips and pointers. I will be there on the 18th, day after Presidents Day, and was also wondering about the camping, do you think it will be a problem finding a site?

  14. steve corey says:


    Will you be in Yosemite Feb 18 – 20th ? Checked your workshop schedule to no avail.

    I would like to hook up with you for a day if you are giving a workshop during that time frame. I’ve got a reasonable image of Horsetail, but would like to find other areas that offer a unique photo experience.

    Steve corey

  15. Chuck Cagara says:

    Michael – After reading your recent e-mail regarding the current Horsetail prospects, I ventured into the park on Thursday (Feb. 13.)

    I’m a bit late since the recent rain/snow has petered out to a large extent. Nevertheless, Mother Nature produced a very respectable light show at 5:38 p.m., shortly after official sunset.

    Here’s the result:

    Hoping the predicted upcoming stormy weather will produce an additional deluge over the brink within the annual “window.”

    Hope springs eternal and I’ll be watching the weather in anticipation…


  16. Terence says:

    Not sure where is the appropriate place to ask, so,

    Lightroom graduated filter question:

    Can the filter be applied only to a discrete area of the image but not to the areas outside of the filter’s boundary lines?

    For example, say there is a vertical cylinder in the center of the frame. I want to apply a gradient filter to show the curviture of the cylinder, but not effect the background. If I put the boundary lines of the filter on the edges of the cylinder, then move the exposure slider to minus (dark), I’ll get my gradient on the cylinder (say the darkened side is on the left. However, the entire background on the left of the cylinder will be darkened to the darkest level of the gradient.

    Is there a way to get the gradient only on the cylinder, but not darken half the background?

    As a work-around, I could use the adjustment brush to select the darkened part of the background, then lighten it to what it had been, but that seems a bit Rube Goldbergish.



    • Michael Frye says:

      Terence, Lightroom’s Graduated Filter tool can’t be applied in the way you describe. You can, however, add another Graduated Filter with the opposite effect (exposure set to plus, in your example), to essentially negate the effect of the first Graduated Filter on the part of the image where where you don’t want to apply the effect.

      • Terence says:


        Thank you for the quick response. I tried adding a new filter with the boundary lines in the same place, on the edges of the cylinder, then went light instead of dark with the exposure. It did negate the darkening on the background, but it also negated the gradient on the cylinder. So, the whole image is back to its original appearance.

        What am I missing?

        Thanks again.

        • Michael Frye says:

          The boundary lines for the filter shouldn’t be in the same place. You want the second filter to cover the area you didn’t want darkened when you applied the first filter.

          The Graduated Filter tool can be confusing. Unfortunately I can’t easily explain how it works here, but there is a video tutorial on using the Graduated Filter that’s included with my Landscapes in Lightroom 5 ebook.

          • Terence says:

            Good tip. Seems like the trick is to bring the boundary lines of the new gradient together into a single line, then place that line on the left boundary line of the original gradient. Then adjust the exposure of the left background area to match that of the right. You might have to spin that new line 180 to make it work.

  17. Stan and Joanne Sogsti says:

    Dear Michael,

    We are new subscribers and are so amazed and thankful for the sharing of your photographic knowledge. Our first time to shoot Horsetail Falls will be Saturday 2/22/14. We are so lucky to have read your tips on how to shoot Horsetail that we can not say “thanks” enough.

  18. Lisa Talley says:

    Good evening Michael,
    My friend and I found some cheap tickets to FAT in early February. We are both visiting family and I was wondering if that is too early to get a picture of Horsetail Falls? I have been reading your thread on it and it seems that the 5th or 6th is too early. I’m also curious on the driving conditions that time of year. My moms car is not what I would call a mountain car!


    • Michael Frye says:

      Lisa, yes, Feb. 5th and 6th is too early for the best light on Horsetail Fall. You can get good sunset color on the fall then, but you don’t get the shadowed cliff behind the water, which is a big part of the effect. As I’ve said, the best window is from about February 16th through 23rd.

      As for driving, I highly recommend bringing or renting a 4WD vehicle, as that will make it unlikely that you will have to put on chains. You’re still required to carry chains even if you have 4WD, but it’s very rare for the park service to require that all vehicles put on chains, even if they have 4WD. If you don’t have 4WD then you should be prepared to use chains. Put them on in your driveway and make sure that they fit. You don’t want to try putting them on for the first time in a blizzard. Highway 140 is the lowest-elevation road into Yosemite Valley, and is therefore less likely to have a chain requirement than the other roads. You can check the park’s road conditions by calling 209-372-0200.

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